What Is Carbon Monoxide?

For about as long as man has walked the earth, he has used fire stay warm. Today, we are fortunate to have refined fire to the point where it is cleaner, more efficient, and safer than ever before. Today, our source of fire often comes from burning natural gas—a naturally-occurring energy source that is cheap, easy to contain, and fairly low risk. However, any time you burn natural gas, you run the risk of producing carbon monoxide—a dangerous gas that could be devastating or even fatal in large quantities.

If this gas is so dangerous, why do we continue to use anything that can produce it in our homes? There’s an easy answer for that: the risk is low and can be easily mitigated with proper preventive measures. With the information in this blog, it is our goal to help you better understand carbon monoxide, including what it is, how it is formed, and how you can keep this risk to a minimum in order to continue to live safely.

What Is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas formed as a byproduct of the combustion of natural gas. Whereas carbon dioxide is a combination of one carbon and two oxygen atoms into a mostly harmless gas that plants convert back into oxygen, carbon monoxide is a combination of a single carbon and oxygen atom. This substance’s chemical properties are substantially different, to say the least, and it can be extremely toxic when ingested in large quantities. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that around 50,000 people per year go to emergency rooms for accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

The primary way carbon monoxide gets into your home’s atmosphere is as a byproduct of burning natural gas. Burning natural gas produces exhaust, and this exhaust will just escape into the atmosphere unless it is properly contained and vented somewhere safe, like outside your home. This is why most homes have small, round chimneys popping out of the roof in a few different spots: these are natural gas exhaust vents. As long as the ducts that connect these appliances to these vents are intact and leak-free, burning natural gas is extremely low-risk.

But what about your gas-burning appliances that don’t have outside ventilation? What about gas-burning ovens and stovetops or gas fireplaces? For these appliances, the risk is actually inherently lower than appliances like your dryer, furnace, or water heater. When you burn natural gas, you’re actually burning more than just the gas itself—combustion requires oxygen, and flames get stronger the more oxygen they have.

When gas is burned in a high-oxygen environment, such as in appliances that have open flames that you can easily see with your own eyes, the burning process produces more far more carbon dioxide than carbon monoxide purely because there are more oxygen atoms available during the combustion process. Because the exhaust in this case is more harmless carbon dioxide and dangerous monoxide concentration is much lower, ventilation for these appliances simply isn’t as important. Sure, you can open a window to allow fresh air in when you run your stovetop, but normally a fume extractor or fume hood should be more than enough for a typical home kitchen to safely operate indefinitely.

Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is potentially deadly in large amounts, and carbon monoxide poisoning sadly claims the lives of at least 430 people per year across the United States. Why does this happen? For the most part, it happens because of either carelessness or failure to take adequate precautions when burning natural gas. For example, they have allowed the exhaust ducts on their furnace or water heater to fall apart, meaning they now have cracks or leaks that allow the fumes to escape back into the atmosphere of their home.

Another reason this can happen is a cracked heat exchanger. A heat exchanger is a part of your furnace that transfers produced heat into the air that is forced into your home, but not the dangerous exhaust. When a heat exchanger cracks (which can happen over time) carbon monoxide can pour into the air that is pushed through your air ducts, spreading the gas around your home, creating a situation that has caused a large number of carbon monoxide emergencies. We recommend keeping a well-maintained carbon monoxide detector in your closet with your HVAC system, as well as other detectors in strategically placed locations around your home.

Want to make sure your furnace is safe to use this winter? Have it inspected by the team at Service Today! Dial (651) 419-3228 now to schedule your service.